The exhaustively discussed labor practices of Apple's overseas contractors, especially Foxconn in China, have prompted about 250,000 people to petition for reform. Tomorrow, organizers in at least five cities — New York, Washington, San Francisco, Sydney and Bangalore, at last count — will deliver to Apple stores a petition opposing the workers' factory conditions in China.
But don't expect this to be "Occupy Apple."
"This is not a rally. This is not going to be a giant protest," said Sarah Ryan, 23, who is coordinating the New York City action at the Apple store in Grand Central Station tomorrow at 10 a.m. Ryan is a human rights activist with Change.org, which, along with the organization SumOfUs, has hosted the online petition.
Rather than a mass mobilization, it will be "a very positive campaign," as she described it. A few dozen activists will enter the New York store – though they will be hard to miss. "We'll have costumes," she said. "One person will be dressed as an iPhone."
Rather than a fierce opponent of Apple, Ryan is a loyal customer. "Because we're so close to Apple, we want Apple to be better," she said.
And that is the entire spirit of the petition, created by Apple fan Mark Shields in Washington, D.C. Part of the petition letter reads:
Here’s the thing: you’re Apple. You’re supposed to think different. I want to continue to use and love the products you make, because they’re changing the world, and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, it’s not at the cost of horrible human suffering.
In it, Shields asked for two things. First, he asked Apple to release a "worker protection strategy" to protect against injuries and suicides during the frenzied production ahead of a new product release. Second, he asked Apple to publish the results of monitoring by the Fair Labor Association "including the NAMES(sic) of the suppliers found to have violations and WHAT those violations are, so that there is transparency around the monitoring effort."
Ryan said that the labor conditions of Apple's Chinese contractors is hardly news to her organization, nor a fad kicked off by the in-depth series of articles called "The iEconomy" published by the New York Times beginning on Jan. 21. "Unfortunately, it's taken something like the recent explosions in the factories to put it in the minds of the media and of folks who buy those products," she said.
In Apple's defense, it is neither the only nor – according to several estimates — the worst company when it comes to enforcing fair labor practices. In fact, Li Qiang, the head of China Labor Watch, told our sister site LAPTOP magazine in an interview last week that he owns an iPhone because Apple has the best (or least bad) track record on labor practices. He made it clear, however, that Apple is still not doing nearly enough. “Unfortunately, I think that there is not a single factory or a single company who is making ethical products right now,” he told LAPTOP.
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of SumOfUs, the other group helping organize the petition, agrees that Apple has made some positive moves – such as recently publishing a list of all its suppliers. "That was a very positive and important step. And I’m glad they did that, and they deserve praise for that," she said.
But Apple is the best target for action, say several activists. "They’re in a position to take a leadership role in the tech industry because of their incredible success," said Amanda Kloer, the director of Change.org.
In short, Apple can afford to make things better. And its combination of record profits and accusations of poor labor conditions is not coincidental, say activists.
Making an example
Picking the biggest target is not new in consumer activism. In fact, it's been the model for decades.
"The rationality of targeting Apple as opposed to Intel or Dell is that if they make their products ethically, other companies will follow them," said Ryan. She believes it will show that consumers will pay more for humanely produced products and change the market.
“They are, by nature of being Apple, standing out from the crowd,” said Kloer.
In a similar way, Nike was targeted in the late 1990s for its labor practices. That was before Kloer's time, she said. But she gave plenty of examples of similar campaigns that Change.org has worked on.
Best-known of the campaigns is likely the recent one against Bank of America's plan to charge a $5 monthly fee for customers using its debit cards. Molly Katchpole, a 22- year-old resident of Washington, D.C., created a petition against the policy, also on Change.org, and quickly gathered about 300,000 signatures.
Likely due in large part to the petition, Bank of America abandoned its plans. And Kloer believes that influenced the entire banking industry. “When they saw the incredible pushback against Bank of America ,there haven’t been any other companies considering such fees," she said.
Change.org is working on several similar campaigns. They won a small victory, for example, with Hershey recently, regarding the use of humanely produced cocoa. "In the cocoa industry, there’s definitely child labor, there’s child slavery," said Kloer.
Hershey hasn't completely changed, but it has agreed to use Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa for all of its Bliss Chocolate products. But getting Hersey to act is an important move, said Kloer, "because Hershey is such a big company and they have an opportunity to lift up the chocolate industry and make sure that it’s responding to workers' rights and human rights around the world.”
In other words, Hershey is the Apple of the chocolate business.
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